Genre: CG Animation
Director: Dan Scanlon
Cast: Chris Pratt, Tom Holland, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Mel Rodriguez, Lena Waithe, Ali Wong
Runtime: 1 hr 42 mins
Released By: Walt Disney
Official Website: https://movies.disney.com/onward
Opening Day: 5 March 2020
Synopsis: Set in a suburban fantasy world, Disney and Pixar’s “Onward” introduces two teenage elf brothers who embark on an extraordinary quest to discover if there is still a little magic left out there. Pixar Animation Studios’ all-new original feature film is directed by Dan Scanlon and produced by Kori Rae—the team behind “Monsters University”.
That you’d be holding high expectations of any animation bearing the Pixar brand is inevitable, but it is also why you’d likely find their latest underwhelming.
The opening moments promise much whimsical magic: a land inhabited by creatures as fascinating as galloping centaurs, spell-casting wizards and fire-breathing dragons; until technology took over, and rendered such enchantment irrelevant.
It is in this alternate version of suburbia that the story unfolds in earnest with the tender, shy Ian Lightfoot (voiced by ‘Spider-Man’ Tom Holland) and his brash older brother Barley (voiced by ‘Star-Lord’ Chris Pratt). Ever since their dad passed away a few years back, they have been raised by their mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss).
Not surprisingly, both boys have daddy issues – whereas Barley chooses to block out all but three memories of their father, Ian wishes he had the chance to meet Dad, and spends his time in his room imagining how a conversation with Dad would have been like.
Turns out that Dad had planned for such a reunion all along, gifting Ian a wizard’s staff on his 16th birthday which could bring his father back to life for 24 hours. Unfortunately, amidst conjuring the spell, the mystic jewel enabling it falls apart, such that Dad returns with only the lower half of his body.
So begins a quest in Barley’s beat-up van he names Guinevere to find another Phoenix gem to complete the spell, and bring the rest of Dad back before time runs out. That road trip leads to a series of wacky encounters, including with a manticore named Corey (Octavia Spencer) who runs a medieval-themed family restaurant of the same name, an angry mob of leather-jacketed pixies on motorcycles, and even a lesbian cyclops patrol cop (Lena Waithe).
Each of these encounters is excuse for a sequence of wild hijinks, whether is it unleashing the dormant nature of the part-lion, part-scorpion manticore, or triggering a highway chase with the said pixie bikers, or just some tomfoolery with the police during a routine roadside stop. The misadventures allow Ian and Barley to bond as brothers, even and especially as they struggle together through how much they each miss Dad in their own ways.
If it feels unexpectedly personal, that’s because director Dan Scanlon (from ‘Monsters University’) had based this upon his own experience with his brother coping with the loss of their own father at an early age. Scanlon (who co-wrote the script with Jason Headley and Keith Bunin) keeps the sibling dynamic affecting, right down to the finale when Ian makes a touching sacrifice for Barley.
Themes of love and loss are commonplace in Pixar films – think ‘Up’ or ‘Inside Out’ – and ‘Onwards’ treads familiar ground without really being deeply moving. To their credit, Holland and Pratt share a winning rapport that make the tale relatable, but Ian and Barley just aren’t distinctive enough to get us to invest as intimately into their emotional struggles as we ought to.
Ditto for the other supporting characters – while Mom and Corey get some amusing moments of their own trying to track down Ian and Barley, especially with a reptilian pawn broker, neither is fleshed out enough to come to some sort of meaningful payoff at the end. And as delightful as the other wacky creatures may be, they are but distractions in a narrative that feels more scattershot than stirring.
In place of the rich character-building we’re used to is plenty of slapstick gags that you would more likely associate with Dreamworks, and we say that knowing fully well that it isn’t meant to be flattering. It doesn’t help that the magical world which the characters inhabit feel a lot less exciting than it probably should, largely because you’d think that you’ve seen it somewhere someplace else.
As unfortunate as it sounds, ‘Onward’ is a victim of Pixar’s own successes, even as we try to appreciate the movie on its own merits. It is perfectly amiable entertainment all right, but it lacks both originality and characterisation to make it truly outstanding. Don’t get us wrong – there is still much diverting fun to be had in its mythical world of elves, centaurs and pixies, and as long as you don’t mind something not quite at Pixar’s regular high standards, there is still animated magic to be had.
(It's no Pixar classic, but this story of love and loss conjures enough magic to keep you on board its 'Onward' journey)
Review by Gabriel Chong